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10 Ways People Should Never Describe You

People talk. When they do, make sure they don't use these words to describe you.
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A couple years ago I listed 10 ways you should never describe yourself based on a simple premise: it's awesome when people call you, say, an "authority," but describing yourself as an authority is juuust a bit pompous.

So while it's great when people describe you a certain way, there are also ways people should never describe you:

Cynical

As Dharmesh Shah says, cynics are toxic: "At a fundamental level they don't believe in goodness. They don't believe in the ability of other people to overcome, to rise up, and to achieve. And they don't believe in new ideas because, if nothing else, they don't believe in people (including themselves.)"

You don't want to be seen as cynical, but skeptical? That's cool. As Dharmesh says, "Skeptics like to look at data. They like to be convinced. They like to analyze, assess, measure, and draw their own conclusions--and in the process help transform a good idea into a great idea."

When you're seen as skeptical, smart people will naturally come to you for help identifying and plugging the holes in their ideas. When you're seen as cynical, smart people will naturally avoid you like the plague you are.

Controlling

Yeah, you're in charge. Sweet. Still, when a decision needs to be made the best person to make that decision is usually not you. It's the employee closest to the issue.

While decisiveness is a quality of a good leader (see "unsure" below), one of the best ways to be decisive is to decide who is the right person to make a decision or take the lead. Many people like to be in charge because they want to call the shots. Great leaders don't see control as a reward, so as a result they aren't seen as controlling. They're seen as a person who helps.

Anal

Every business needs at least one person that ensures "i"s are dotted and "t"s are crossed. That's especially true for small business, since many entrepreneurs tend to be visionary and big-picture rather than lovers of a properly torqued nut and bolt.

But there's a huge difference between a person who is thorough and a person who is anal, and that difference lies in their motivations. Both want things to be done right, but while the thorough person wants things to be done the way the company has decided they should be done, the anal person wants things to be done the way he (why is it always a guy thing?) has decided they should be done.

Be thorough. Be comprehensive. Just make sure your detail-orientation is focused on processes important to the company--not on making sure people follow procedures that are only important to you.

Self-serving

No one accomplishes anything worthwhile by themselves. Great leaders focus on providing tools and training and on creating the environment that best helps their employees succeed. Same with great consultants; they're great because they put client needs first. Great businesses do, too; they go out of their way to help and benefit their customers.

Great people put other people first and as a result then reap their own rewards.

Being described as self-serving is the kiss of death for anyone hoping to create a spirit of collaboration and teamwork--and the eventual kiss of death for a career or business. Self-serving people are all too obviously only in it for themselves, which means that someday soon they stand by themselves.

Instead, work hard to earn the reputation of servant.  You'll not only succeed professionally, but you'll also have lots of friends.

Critical

It's tempting to turn every possible teachable moment into a lesson learned. It's a lot harder to let people learn their own lessons, even though those lessons are the ones we all remember best. That's because criticism, especially public criticism, makes us focus on avoiding that criticism and not on improving a deficiency or weakness.

So leave the judgment aside and find ways to help your employees advance their skills and their careers. Be seen as supportive, not critical.

The only person you should be critical of is yourself, especially when you're reflecting on your day to find ways you can perform better tomorrow.

Situational

A decision that makes sense today should make sense tomorrow, and if that decision no longer makes sense or applies to a particular situation, the reasons should be communicated.

But here's what often happens: Quality is all-important unless the cost of a mistake is too big. (Then instead of eating the cost, we better go ahead and ship and hope no one notices.) Behaving professionally is all-important, unless the offender happens to be the top salesperson. (Then we decide that's just "Joe being Joe" and we should probably let it go.)

Being described as situational means people know you have multiple agendas, and they know that most of the time the most important agenda to you is your agenda.

Cocky

Cocky people know they're great, and they want you to know it too. Cocky people are loud and constantly seek attention; confident people tend to be quiet and shy away from the spotlight because they don't need outside validation.

Cocky people tell others what to think or feel; confident people ask others what they think and feel. They already know what they think so they want to know what you think. Cockiness is irritating and off-putting. A quietly confident person automatically makes everyone feel more assured, because genuine confidence rubs off. Cockiness rubs, but it rubs the wrong way.

Unsure

Caution is often a virtue, but where leadership is concerned, caution should be relatively private. Fear, uncertainty, doubt--display those qualities too often as a leader and your team will become uncertain and doubtful, too. That's especially true when you're starting something new, transitioning from something old, or when times are tough.

When you aren't sure, make it a positive for your team. Use your concerns as a springboard for seeking advice. Explain your uncertainty to your team and ask for their input. Turn hesitation into a way to include and engage. When your uncertainty is seen as a natural part of a larger decision-making process, everyone understands and participates. When you're floundering and appear lost? Then you're just unsure. And then you lose your team.

Sympathetic

Surprised by this one? Here's why: Sympathy is fine, but empathy is much finer. If you're sympathetic you can understand my pain, but when you're empathetic you can feel my pain--and that means you can help me alleviate that pain.

The best companies are also empathetic. They put themselves in their customers' shoes to meet customer needs, develop real solutions to customer problems, and create experiences that delight.

Don't just offer a shoulder to cry on. Provide the help someone needs. The difference between the definitions of "sympathy" and "empathy" may be lost on that person, but the difference in how you treat them will be obvious.

Unforgiving

Great companies are built on high standards. Great leaders expect the best from their employees, which means some leaders are widely considered and even celebrated as uncompromising, unrelenting, hard-nosed professionals.

Just don't turn maintaining high standards into a lack of willingness to forgive. Great employees will still make occasional errors. Great vendors will still sometimes fall short. Key partners will occasionally fail to hold up their end. Even you will make mistakes.

So expect the best. And reward the best. But don't be afraid to forgive--because even the best occasionally fall short. What you do when someone falls short makes all the difference. For that person, for your team, and for you.

Disagree? Any words you'd like to add? Share below.

Last updated: Jan 6, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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